Austrian law mandates that, with a few exceptions, shops remain closed on Sundays. Raised according to old-school, Dutch-American Sabbath observance—bike-riding is okay, football-watching is reluctantly winked at, but any practice of commerce, tithes excluded, is very much frowned upon—I could have taken this as a comfort, a federally ordained slice of familiarity.
Instead I stood there, quaking in the checkout line. I’d been in Austria, my home for the next two years, for four days and had lived, to that point, almost exclusively on kebab and sausage from street side stands.
It was early Saturday evening, and I’d slipped in the door of my local Billa—short for Billiger Laden, or Cheap Shop—ten minutes before closing. Immediately I felt like I should apologize. This is probably because 1. Contrary to American cultural commandment, in Austria the customer is pretty much always wrong and 2. There’s an exponentially positive correlation between the feeling of anonymity and guilty self-awareness. And I, the alien within their gates, was feeling particularly anonymous.
I had scrambled for the essentials—cheap pasta, cold beer, a handful of produce—and had picked up a Milka chocolate bar from where the tabloids and gossip magazines would have been at home. By the time I reached the Kasse—checkout aisle—an expanding queue of Saturday night shoppers had begun to grow restless. Behind me stood a frail-seeming Austrian woman, who I later learned was only adhering to Austrian cultural commandment when she demanded the opening of second register.
“Zweite Kasse, bitte!” I shivered.
Had I been less desperate, I might have stayed home. Instead, I pocketed the spare change on my desk—€9.83!—and set out for the grocery store. Desperate for what, exactly? Cheap pasta, cold beer, sure, but mostly for proof that I existed in this new place, that I wasn’t hiding.
In a week I’d be teaching foreign faces in a foreign building in a foreign country. Until then I was a stranger in a place that would be, or at least was supposed to be but wasn’t yet, home. I knew no one and had little to do. So I walked around, cloaking myself in pedestrian anonymity, occasionally completing one or another task in my checklist of expat to-do’s.
On the first day I registered with the city government. I shuffled into the city hall and submitted a form declaring my occupation, religion, and residency. On the second day I opened a bank account; a jovial banker, whom I now remember fondly as Austria’s lone apostle for customer service, gave me a cappuccino before I signed on the dotted line. On the third day I bought a cell phone, a gray Nokia pay-as-you-go brick. It came with a wallet size plastic card listing my phone number, a PIN code, and the long-distance calling rates.
In a post-fall world, I realized, the Genesis story begins with bureaucracy and proceeds through the impatient checkout line of an Austrian supermarket. And there I was, evening on the fourth day.
Per the frail-seeming woman’s sharp request, they opened a second register, which made me next in line. I stepped forward, knees trembling, and fumbled my items onto the conveyer belt, where they were scanned and rung up before I could decide whether to respond to the cashier’s greeting in the formal or the informal.
In Austria, you are the bagger. This is a country that shares a language and a complicated sibling relationship with Germany, home of the Albrecht brothers, founders of Aldi. It’s up to you to greet, bag, and pay before the frail-seeming woman behind you sighs and asks for a zweite Kasse. Austria is a Catholic country, and sometimes these rituals feel like the rushed litany of a Latin Mass might to an outsider—routine, yes, monotonous, perhaps, but replete with meaning that’s only partially understood.
“Grüβ Gott,” (God’s greetings).
Three seconds too late, I returned the cashier’s benediction in the formal. I then struggled to collect my items by hand, briefly contemplated which of my purchases I could most easily part with—beer or green peppers?—and finally listened to the cashier’s stern suggestion that I just buy a bag. I fished around my pockets for a loose euro coin, but was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder, a frail-seeming hand extending me a euro. Sheepish, I took the coin, bought a bag, and gathered my groceries.
I took the long way home, walking along the river. The sun barely hung over the hills but cast a ribbon of gold light on the gray Danube. And there was morning the next day.